Agile marketing (what it means in practice)

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Signal provide a five-step guide for understanding agile marketing.

Personally I’ve grown to hate the word 'agile'. It’s become a ubiquitous buzzword, which has taken on a vast variety of connotations.

For the uninitiated, dipping a toe into the swirling pool of agile-related content and training that’s on offer can be a confusing and baffling experience.

This is an especially pertinent challenge for marketing leaders who need to quickly identify which aspects of 'agile' will best work for them and their teams.

If this sounds like you, take comfort in knowing you are not alone. A 2019 survey indicates that 50% of marketing leaders in traditional companies are looking to adopt more agile ways of working, and 32% are already on the journey.

So what does it all mean?

To clear up confusion around what agile means for marketing, I often start consultancy engagements by asking the teams I’m working with to each write on a Post-it what 'agile' means to them. It’s a simple but interesting exercise, and very quickly enables me to flush out common misconceptions.

Try, it. Take 30 seconds and jot down what agile means to you.

I’ve found the same things come up time and time again:

  • Agile is going faster: An especially common misconception. Doing the same stuff as normal just, you know, faster!
  • Agile is a specific practice: Sometimes people write Scrum, Kanban, Sprints or Stand-ups on the Post-it. Not necessarily wrong, but quite a narrow definition of what agile involves.
  • Agile means no planning: It’s not that agile doesn’t involve planning, just that their plans are designed to change.

So, if these are misconceptions, what is the right answer? What does agile marketing actually mean?

There has been a growing effort to clarify this. In 2012, a group of around 20 forward thinking marketers gathered in San Francisco to produce the Agile Marketing Manifesto which sets out seven foundational values of agile marketing. One of the authors has since refined this to set out six values and four benefits for adopting agile principles within marketing teams (below).

As interest in agile marketing has grown, consultancies have tried to apply these values to the work they do with clients, and even their internal marketing teams. McKinsey have set out an agile marketing approach that focused on cross-functional collaboration and iterative experimentation. And Deloitte has transformed its internal marketing team to work in a more agile way.

With many alternative definitions, and conflicting perspectives, it feels like the exact definition of agile marketing is still very difficult to pin down, so here is my take on the five pillars that are that are key to actually doing agile marketing.

Doing agile marketing

1. Customer-focused collaboration

Agile marketers put the customer front and centre of everything they do. This may sound obvious - after all, what kind of marketing ignores customers? But often marketing teams are guilty of operating one step removed, devoting their energy to managing the brand, or churning out campaigns to schedule, and it is easy to lose focus on who it’s all for.

The question agile marketers should aspire to answer, is how best to engage customers at every stage of their journey. This isn’t normally a question that marketing teams can answer on their own, so collaboration with other business functions is a cornerstone of any agile marketing approach.

Exactly what collaboration looks like will vary depending on the circumstances. For marketing teams attempting to integrate agile into their daily operations, collaboration may be as simple as inviting a non-departmental colleagues to meetings, or re-arranging where teams sit.

For a marketing executive attempting to instigate a bigger change, collaboration may mean reaching out to form a trailblazing multidisciplinary project team - with a remit to tackle a tricky problem that would otherwise fall between organisational cracks.

Either way agile markers must set out to be inclusive, and recognise that they can’t and shouldn’t want to try and do everything on their own.

2. Set clear and measurable goals

The collaborative nature of agile teams is reinforced by setting objectives and goals at the level of the team rather than the individual. This type of goal-setting is supported by the notion of servant leadership, in which the leader of an agile marketing team won't prescribe what to do, but rather focuses on making sure the direction is clear and removing impediments to progress. This leads to a very flat hierarchy, with little micromanagement and empowered team members who are all working together to achieve the same things.

What the goals are will vary depending on the context, but it’s important that an agile marketing team is measured on outcomes rather than output. It shouldn’t matter how much content is produced, or how busy the team seem to be, what matters is whether they are able to achieve the goals that have been agreed.

It is of course an important prerequisite to make sure that goals are actually measurable. This means deciding in advance on the exact metrics that will be used, the benchmarks for success, and technically how data will be captured and managed.

3. Create a prioritised backlog

Once goals have been set, the overall strategic direction should be clear. Now the tactics used to get there are up to the agile marketing team. Based on the agreed goals, the team is responsible for managing their own priorities and workload. This is usually done by creating a ‘backlog’ for the team, which is essentially a ‘to do’ list of everything that ought to be on the team’s radar.

Things in the backlog will be of different sizes, and it’s normal for a backlog to include big initiatives, processes, tiny tasks and experimental ideas. This variation is acceptable, since the backlog isn’t a static plan that’s produced once and referred back to like gospel.

Instead, it is fluid and is constantly being updated by the team. New items can be added, half-baked ideas can be fleshed out, and things that are no longer relevant can be removed.

Since the backlog is a constantly evolving artifact, it needs to ‘live’ somewhere. For some teams this will be a physical space, for example a Kanban board on a wall, but most will maintain a digital version using established agile software like Jira or Trello.

The backlog needs to be prioritised, and this is something the agile marketing team will devote time to regularly. There are no hard and fast rules for how to do this, and teams will adopt their own frameworks for prioritisation. While clear goals provide a useful reference point, most teams will find they need to strike a balance between working on business-as-usual type tasks and devoting space to customer tests and ‘growth hacks’ that could open up new areas of opportunity.

4. Work iteratively

At first, figuring out what to prioritise in the backlog will involve some guesswork. This is because there may be initiatives in there that nobody is sure how to tackle, or experiments with totally unpredictable results.

This is OK, and agile marketing teams shouldn’t try to tackle everything at once. Instead, they will work iteratively. In practice, this means regularly pulling the top priority items from the backlog, working together to plan in detail the specific tasks to be done, estimating how long they will take, and deciding who will do them. This is a team-led process and requires constant communication, which is enabled by regular planning sessions, and daily stand-ups.

This is where the concept of ‘sprints’ is potentially useful. Probably the most heavily adopted (and abused) piece of agile lingo, a sprint is just a timebox in which the team agree that an amount of work will be delivered. At the end of the sprint the team should have something to show for it and be able to demonstrate that progress.

There are two big reasons that working in sprints is effective. The first is Parkinson’s Law: work expands to fill the time available. Setting a clear deadline, as with a two week sprint, focuses minds on the priorities at hand. So long as the team is free to manage its own workload, this can lead to rapid, but consistent progress without the risk of burnout.

The second, and probably the most important reason, is that working iteratively leads to a shorter feedback cycle. At the end of each sprint, the team is able to produce something that they can learn from. They can evaluate what is working, and adjust priorities for the next sprint, shifting focus to make sure that they are continuously progressing towards achieving their objectives.

5. Use data to make decisions

Interestingly teams that work iteratively will soon find that there isn’t always much correlation between the complexity of items in the backlog, and the results they deliver. It is important then for agile marketers to allow statistics to trump opinions and conviction. Sometimes, an analysis of the data shows that the simplest things lead to the best results. Since the team are regularly evaluating results, it is easier to double down on what works, and de-prioritise less valuable activities.

Making decisions with data requires a very high level of transparency. Everyone in an agile marketing team should have access to the data that is being used to track progress and measure success. Results should also be readily shared beyond the team.

For some agile marketing teams transparency may mean getting decorative, and covering the walls of their office space or project room with the results of their work. Digital tools such as dashboards and scorecards can also provide a flexible way to share results seamlessly across the team and wider organisation.

A focus on data over instinct can mean that creative impulses need to take a back seat, or that the highest paid person in the room harrumphs with frustration at not getting their way, but in a world where marketing activity is increasingly measurable, faith in data tends to be borne out over time.

Embracing Agile Marketing

For some marketing teams, internalising just one of the principles above will give them the sprinkling of agile they are looking for to achieve a change. However, it’s important to understand that these are really interlocking pieces of a wider philosophy. The best results are achieved when a marketing team makes strides towards embracing an agile mindset as part of a new way of working.

Is embracing agile marketing something that you need to do? Increasingly it may be. It is now difficult to find a major company that isn’t using agile within software development. Agile wasn’t a fad within technology, and while development methods continue to evolve the core principles behind agile look like they are here to stay.

In an increasingly fast paced, and digitally driven world, no marketing team has the luxury of operating in a silo, or simply sticking with the approaches that worked well in the past. As organisations increasingly experiment with the idea of adopting agile practices beyond technology teams, it will be the marketers still gazing at their reflection in the pool, rather than diving in, who are left behind.

David Hammond, consultant at Signal.

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